Europe needs to enhance its stand on the security of space activities


Picture of Serge Plattard
Serge Plattard

Serge Plattard is Senior Resident Fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) and Honorary Professor at University College London (UCL). He writes in personal capacity.

Space matters for the world and for Europe. Over the last 60 years it has become an increasing presence in our society, supporting telecommunications and broadcasting, weather forecasting, Earth observation and environment monitoring. We rely on space activities for positioning, navigation and timing, and increasingly for security and defence. Space is radically transforming our daily lives.

Imagine the disturbance, even paralysis, which our society would experience if satellites were shut down for an hour, a day or a week: an enormous slice of human activity would just come to a standstill.

To underline such dependence on space assets, it’s worth noting that each European ‘uses’ about 50 satellites every day. Today, ten per cent of European activity depends on navigation satellite systems. This is expected to reach 30% in 2030. 80% of data required for accurate weather forecast originates from weather satellites. 26 out of the 50 parameters needed for global climate monitoring can be measured only from space. Hundreds of millions of broadcast receivers are satellite dependent.

The recent communication from the European Commission on ‘Space Strategy for Europe’ stresses the importance of space for economic growth, innovation and new services, and calls for Europe to take a much stronger role on the world stage when it comes to space matters. This will be possible only if, in parallel to delivering new and improved services to an ever-widening community of users, Europe is able to ensure a safe, secure and sustainable environment for its space activities. Regrettably, this central element is missing in the proposed strategy.

Each European ‘uses’ about 50 satellites every day

The increasing level of space dependency means that our society is more vulnerable to the space environment, which has become congested and contested over the years.

It is congested with over 1400 active satellites and an increasing amount of space debris that can severely damage or destroy valuable space assets. There is also an increasing risk of radio frequency interference due to the increase of the number of satellite transponders and the low Earth orbit constellations of thousands of small satellites destined to bridge the digital divide experienced by isolated and/or low-income populations.

It is contested in all orbits by man-made threats that may deny, degrade, deceive, disrupt or destroy one or several assets. These threats include jamming telecommunication satellites or taking control of one of several satellites. China, Russia and the United States have also demonstrated their anti-satellite weapons and robotic inspector capabilities for a variety of orbits. Competing for such limited orbital and radiofrequency resources will demand more innovative and high-performing satellites, setting the bar higher when it comes to their reliability and efficiency.

Moving from a handful of players in the 1970s, when the Outer Space Treaty (1967) seemed sufficient to regulate space activities, to a complex present and future requires adapted governance schemes and some greater awareness, control and ability to manage space traffic – via technical, political and legal means.

Space surveillance and tracking (SST) data are mainly provided to European satellite operators by the US Space Surveillance Network (USSSN), part of the US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). The USSSN helps to build up space situational awareness of the different space objects in question.

In that respect, the EU is almost blind, but considering its increased involvement in space matters and the security dimension of space activities (one in six active satellites are European-operated), a consortium was eventually created in 2014 under the EU’s auspices, with five countries putting together their own national capabilities. These may be used to provide common services that can assess collision risks and re-entry-related events.

So far, nations have been able to maintain safe, secure, and sustainable activities on land, on sea and in the air

The EU Satellite Centre (SATCEN) can act as the implementing body, providing SST services by connecting the national operation centres. Currently a modest €70m has been allocated for the period from 2015 to 2020 to cover expenditure related to existing infrastructure and new developments.

On the political side, in December 2008 the EU presented an International Code of Conduct for outer space activities (ICoC). While not legally binding, it proposes a series of transparency- and confidence-building measures to promote international cooperation and help prevent an arms race in outer space.

Despite three open-ended multilateral consultations which brought interest from many nations, the negotiations on a revised draft failed in July 2015. Although the ICoC initiative remains stalled, it is worth noting that major European space-faring nations are actively involved within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN-COPUOS) to adopt a set of guidelines that should ensure the long-term sustainability of activities in outer space.

Enhancing Europe’s role in space security, as part of a collective security endeavour, could mean building on the undergoing consortium to develop and operate a significant and credible set of national and European SST capabilities, moving Europe to a full partner status with the USSSN. In parallel, the EU could prepare a joint proposal with the United States for a revised Code of Conduct that could then be introduced by several member states for discussion at the UN. This would improve inclusiveness and maximise the chances of a successful negotiation and the adoption of a workable Code.

So far, nations have been able to maintain safe, secure, and sustainable activities on land, on sea and in the air. It ought to be done now in space too, and Europe can be instrumental in that work.

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